Many Popular Online Cancer Articles Contain Misleading Information, NCI Says

October 29, 2021 by Alec Stone MA, MPA, ONS Public Affairs Director

With a plethora of information available online, patients with cancer and their families have access to plenty of resources to learn more about their diagnosis and treatment options. However, one-third of the online articles about cancer circulating on social media contain incorrect information, according to findings from a 2021 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Researchers analyzed 200 of the most popular articles posted on social media in 2018 and 2019 on the four most common cancers and found that one in every three contained false, inaccurate, or misleading information. Of the misinformative articles, 77% included information that was probably or certainly harmful.

“This study is noteworthy because it used an independent panel of experts and tried to quantify the extent of inaccurate or false information as well as the potential for causing harm,” Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou, PhD, MPH, of the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI’s) Health Communication and Informatics Research Branch, said. “It shows that exposure to cancer misinformation on social media is a reason for concerns and something we need to investigate in more detail.”

As the amount of misinformation about cancer diagnoses, care, and treatments grows online, NCI said it is taking steps to help patients evaluate information online and determine what is credible. The Cancer Information Service, NCI’s contact center that provides answers to cancer-related questions, is one resource that helps to battle misinformation by providing information to patients and helping them brainstorm about how to talk with their healthcare providers and care teams about their questions and concerns regarding care and treatment options.

“We need to combat misinformation in multiple ways, at multiple levels,” Chou said. “We assume that if you give someone good information, you can help make a difference, but we need to acknowledge that we live in a very noisy environment. The floodgate has been opened, and we have to work with that.”


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